Tigers prospects can spring forward in winter leagues

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario hit .289 with a .372 on-base average in 22 games for Toros del Este of the Dominican League, but now works for Licey after he was drafted as a roster supplement once del Este’s season ended.

A quick scan of Winter League data will tell a range of stories, good to sometimes ugly, about various Tigers players and their off-season ventures with Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, and Australia teams.

On the plus side, there is Isaac Paredes, who next month turns 19, and who is showing why the Tigers insisted he be included in last July’s trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs.

Paredes, for now a shortstop, has played in 15 games for Yaquis de Obregon in the Mexican League and has slashed his way to a .370 batting average, .426 on-base average and .556 slugging percentage, good for a .982 OPS. Look for him on your minor-league ticker in 2018, given that he is one of the Tigers’ genuine talents in a farm system that last year began a makeover that should carry on this year because of early draft picks and likely trades.

On the downside, there was that three-game stint in November in which reliever Jairo Labourt more or less competed for Gigantes del Cibao of the Dominican Winter League. Labourt pitched in three games, walking four in two-thirds of an inning and allowing two hits, which stuck him with an ERA of 40.50 before he headed home to rest, recuperate, and reflect on 2018 and his potential as a huge left-handed relief gunner — if he can locate home plate regularly.

It is an uneven platform on which to evaluate players, for sure. The winter leagues are notorious for players arriving and departing in short, or impromptu fashion; for politics finding their way onto rosters and lineups; and for interruptions of all sorts that can make offseason baseball helpful, but sometimes of dubious value.

Among this past autumn and winter’s disruptions: Hurricane Maria, which so devastated Puerto Rico that a customary winter outlet for players honing their games was canceled.

“Our scouts are there, with some of our player-development people working the various leagues,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president for player development. “You have key issues of playing time, performance, health. And with performance it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what to make of it, based on players’ ages and experience. Sometimes players leave early. Innings are always an issue, and lots of factors come into play.”

Another reality applies to measuring sticks. Hitters generally benefit from Winter League baseball because of the off-speed pitches they more often see in an arena loaded with guile and with junk-ballers who can afford extra innings.

But venues are important, also, in appraising Winter League numbers.

“It’s hard to simulate major-league baseball,” Littlefield said. “The closest you can get is in the late-round playoffs, in say, Licey, or Santo Domingo, or Caracas, when the bigger teams might put 20,000 or 30,000 in the stands. There’s a lot of energy and pressure. It’s a nice environment to be in. You get a better feel for how a guy like Candelario has done.”

Littlefield refers to Jeimer Candelario, who hit .289 with a .372 on-base average in 22 games for Toros del Este of the Dominican League, but now works for Licey after he was drafted as a roster supplement once del Este’s season ended.

Candelario, 24, is a switch-hitter who, like Paredes, arrived courtesy of last July’s deal with the Cubs. Candelario is the Tigers’ everyday third baseman in 2018 until he proves otherwise. Between last summer’s cameo with the Tigers when he hit .330 in 27 games, with an .874 OPS, and his Winter League stints, the Tigers expect no sour surprises.

Paredes is the more electric prospect and should find his way to Single-A Lakeland in 2018, even if he begins the year at West Michigan. He bats right-handed and has played well beyond the norm of most teenagers through his first two minor-league seasons.

“He’s an outstanding-looking player, with a good bat at a young age,” Littlefield said. “Defensively, he’s played fine. He’s got to continue to make some strides with good habits, eating right, sticking to strength and conditioning, so that with his body type he can continue to play in the middle infield. The bat plays well, but he’s gotten a little thicker and we need to keep working on that.”

Translated: Paredes isn’t likely to make the big leagues as a shortstop. Second base, or third base, is his destiny when a youngster listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds figures to have range issues as he grows older.

Dawel Lugo is, for now, the Tigers’ future at second base, status that wasn’t hurt by his 19 games playing for Licey. Lugo, 23, batted .324, with a.359 on-base, and a .737 OPS.

Lugo was shipped to the Tigers, along with two more infielders, in July’s deal that sent J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks.

Tigers prospect Sergio Alcantara batted .255 in 33 games for Licey of the Dominican Winter League. His on-base percentage was .358.

Among the parcel sent to Detroit was Sergio Alcantara, 21, a nifty fielder the Tigers have projected, at the least, as a future big-league back-up.

Alcantara batted .255 in 33 games for Licey. His on-base was .358.

“Probably right now his defense is well ahead of his offense,” Littlefield said of a switch-hitter who is 5-9, 158 pounds. “But he has a nice swing, and there are a lot of positives there. The main thing is he’s got to get stronger. It’s a common theme among so many Latin players: You have slightly built guys who need to add strength.”

Among other Winter League summaries, specific to Tigers players:

Ronny Rodriguez, who could become Andrew Romine’s replacement in 2018, batted .284, with four home runs, in 48 games for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican League. Rodriguez is 25, bats right-handed, and spent earlier years in the Indians system.

Paul Voelker, a right-handed reliever who might have been taken in last month’s Rule 5 draft, instead remains Tigers property and had a slick stint with the Dominican League’s Leones del Escogido: 12 games, 1.54 ERA, 112/3 innings, eight hits, three walks, 11 strikeouts, and a .190 opposing batting average. He had six saves.

“Done a nice job,” Littlefield said of Voelker, 25, who was a 10th-round pick in 2014 out of Dallas Baptist. “Just spoke to him the other day. He’s healthy and throwing well. He’s a very competitive, tough, hard-nosed guy with a good arm. Like a lot of guys, he’s going to have to continue making adjustments going up the ladder. This is a big year for him.”

Voelker was suspended for 50 games last season after he was detected using a banned amphetamine.

He’ll be part of a spring-camp crowd that is now only a month from beginning to spill into Lakeland, Fla. This year’s wrinkle is that the kids on the back-lot minor-league fields could draw as much attention in 2018 as the guys headed for Detroit.

“It’s part of the transition,” Littlefield said, acknowledging that past trades of farm prospects, deeper drafting positions, and prospects lost for signing celebrity free agents, all but gutted the Tigers farm.

“I don’t in any way want to understate the significance of winning a division four years in a row, but when you add that many quality major-leaguers you’re going to deplete some of the system.

“Now we’re signing approximately half the minor-league free agents we did a year ago. It’s one little sign we’ve added a bunch of players by way of trades the past year. Al (general manager Al Avila) has said we’re going to develop and draft and sign our own guys. And this is what you’re seeing happen.”